I admit I’m not a fan of air travel; in fact it scares me to death. Not sure why, because I used to fly quite often, even in some very small planes with propellers and pontoons. After a couple of bumpy flights though I went from being mildly uncomfortable to embarrassingly panicked.
When it became apparent that my son in Texas wasn’t going to be transferred to a closer base any time soon, it was time to get over it and plan a trip. (Side note- since crying “oh no we are going to die” tends to scare the other passengers, I will be traveling with my friend Xanax.)
It’s been interesting to see what’s changed since my last flight, and I outlined some of the rights of an air traveler in my last post. I’ve come to find there are even more things to consider.
Like having a seat, for example. I was surprised to see when I booked our flight, that there were no seats available to reserve except for “preferred” seats that we would have to pay an additional $40-some for.
Really? I paid for a seat on the flight, but I have to pay more to actually sit down?
Not exactly. The seat is not in question, but the seat assignment is. If no pre-assigned seats are available when you make your reservation, you either have to pay a premium or take what you get at check in.
American Airlines says it will assign you a seat at check-in for no charge (uh, thanks). Some seats on the flight may be reserved for “elite” members, and if they are not taken or if the flyer upgrades, the seats are released right before the flight. So it’s worth it to check again before your flight date to try to get a seat you like.
You may want to pay the fee for the other perks included, though, such as more leg room, a seat toward the front, or a window or aisle seat. You may like the idea of preferred boarding, too, which is important when you want to stow carry-on bags. With the advent of checked bag fees came an abundance of luggage carried on to avoid the fees. Space is at a premium, and it’s every man for himself when it comes to snagging an overhead bin. You can usually pay for a preferred seat right up until check-in if they are available. Do you have elite status with an airline? They may be available to you at no extra charge.
Elite or premier status carries additional perks, too, such as premier check-ins, bonus miles and upgrades, not to mention streamlined problem resolution, such as when your flight is cancelled. How can you qualify for this status? There are a few different ways, but the most straightforward way is based on the trips or miles you fly each year. You can also earn points by spending on an airline branded credit card, or sometimes even getting credit for frequent flyer status with another airline.
The lowest elite status level usually takes 25,000 miles in a year to attain. United and Delta both recently announced that beginning Jan. 1, 2015, they will be adding an expenditure minimum to retain status as well, beyond the miles or segments flown each year, meaning spending a certain amount as well. So if you do travel often, grouping your flights on one carrier can make those frequent trips a bit less stressful.
Arguably the most appreciated perk is the waived check baggage fees. What flyer hasn’t tried to cram as much as possible into a carry-on bag, trying hard to keep within the acceptable liquid limits and weighing a bag on the bathroom scale to make sure it’s under 50 pounds, so as not to pay that fee? You may also get the baggage fee waived by having a branded credit card, and most airlines will waive fees for members of the military. You might even save money by shipping your stuff ahead of time.
If you want to skip baggage fees altogether, see if you can travel on Southwest, as they don’t charge baggage fees at all, at least for now.
For some trips, checking baggage is unavoidable. If you are going to check anyway, you might want to look into a package deal. For instance, American offers something they call “Choice Plus” and “Choice Essential,” where you pay $68 for your bag, pre-reserved seating, priority boarding and no change fees.
Southwest offers “EarlyBird Check-in”- for $12.50 each way you get a better spot in line to board. Since Southwest doesn’t assign seats, getting a good spot in line is important. For $40, you can score a place in the first group to board, but only 45 minutes before the flight leaves, and only if there are spots available. You can also get one of those places in line by buying a Business Select ticket.
The main perk of frequent flyer status is free trips. But what happens when those trips are earned by traveling for your employer? Most employers will allow you as an employee to use those rewards personally. Usually any economic benefit derived from work is taxable to you, so it would follow that award travel could be construed as taxable. The IRS has been less than definitive on this though. The agency has stated that there is no enforcement program at this time, and that they would not be pursuing the issue.
Another decision to make while planning a trip is whether or not to buy travel insurance. Don’t be swayed by the appeal to your emotions about all the horrible things that could happen to derail your trip. But don’t dismiss it out of hand either. You’ll need to weigh how much you would lose should your trip be interrupted and the likelihood of needing the insurance.
If you’re planning a once-in-a-lifetime family trip that’s costing a pretty penny, or if someone in your party has a medical condition that might interfere with his or her ability to travel, insurance may be a wise choice.
On the other hand, if you are traveling on a shoestring and staying with family, you can probably skip it.
Before purchasing a policy, check your credit card to see if you already have coverage. It may not be comprehensive, but could be enough for your needs.
When buying a policy, you will have several options, from a policy that covers just about every eventuality and allows you to cancel for any reason, to a more bare bones one. The premium naturally coincides with the coverage.
Some things you may or may not need: Coverage for hurricanes or other weather issues, out of the country medical coverage including evacuation fees, lost or delayed baggage, and even trip interruption due to terrorism.
You can visit insuremytrip.com to compare plans for various companies and policy details. One insurance that is more questionable is accidental death and dismemberment insurance, or life insurance purchased just for your trip. You should already be carrying an appropriate of life insurance, and if not, buy a policy that you can keep rather than insuring for such a short period of time.